Our trembling legs carried us into the white-walled hospital for the first time. I had just returned from a month-long academic program in Oxford. I stepped directly from the most enchanting dream into the most heart-wrenching nightmare. My parents and I walked past children with wigs and children without on the way to Caroline’s room. Her temporary home. It lacked plush pink pillows and the familiar smell of lavender. Metallic balloons cluttered the corner. Flowers were forbidden. We learned the art of breathing through masks, kisses in the air and holding hands through rubber gloves. She didn’t look like herself. The smile remained but she hadn’t eaten in two days and treatment wore her out. Her head and thinning hair were pressed against the pillow, and she reached up and grabbed a bit of hair, inspecting it and turning the strands between her fingers. She asked for her ball so she could add to her collection. Some people think it falls out strand by strand, but they don’t know how traumatic an ordeal it turns out to be when you touch your head and the hair falls out in clumps and you keep pulling at it and there it goes falling to the ground like a kid taking a tumble on the basketball court at recess.
I ached to try to feel the way my niece was feeling, to understand her pain, to know how she was staying so strong through it all. Her spirits remained higher than any of ours. I think my whole family was feeling some level of guilt. We couldn’t make the hungry or the hurting disappear. We could be there with her, we could give her our love, but that was all.